Tense Burundi: What does the Army’s Recent Warning Really Mean? by Archie Henry

The increasingly tense situation in Burundi is now meeting an interesting turn: the Minister of Defense’s warning that the army could finally be deployed to resist “the detractors of peace.”

Last week, Burundians went to the streets to express their disapproval of expected plans by President Pierre Nkurunziza of running for a third term. Third-term opponents highlight that such a move would be unconstitutional, given the two-term limit provided by the Arusha Peace Agreement of 2000, while Nkurunziza’s supporters argue that his first term doesn’t count, as he was elected by members of parliament and not through universal suffrage. The trend in Burundi, however, is that of opposition to a third term-bid. In a Afrobarometer poll in January, 62% of those surveyed said they opposed a third term.

More than 1,000 Burundians protested in the capital Bujumbura last week. Police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse them; more than 100 were arrested, and 65 were charged with “taking part in an insurrectional movement.” As a symptom of the volatile internal political situation compounded by the presence of the Imbonerakurethe ruling party’s youth militia accused of terrorizing those opposing the third termBurundians have been fleeing the country en masse. The number of Burundian refugees in Rwanda has now reached the 10,000 threshold, according to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and the Rwandan government. This is by all means huge. Burundians have also been fleeing eastward and southward to Tanzania, and westward the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)’s South Kivu province. The total number of Burundian who have fled the country is estimated to be around 12,000.

On Monday, during a press conference, the Minister of Defense Pontien Gaciyubwenge said the army was ready to be deployed in order “to accompany the other security actors in resisting the detractors of peace,” upon the request of the commander-in-chief, who is none other than President Nkurunziza. He also added that such a move would be “in compliance with national and international regulations, given the legal implications of not respecting those rules.”

What to make of this announcement? Is this another sign that the ruling CNDD-FDD party is planning to expand its crackdown on popular opposition to Nkurunziza’s likely third-term run? It may indeed appear so. However, considering the neutrality exhibited by the Burundian army thus farand the split loyalties within ithis statement gives way to a sentiment of surprise and confusion. Is it intended as a message that the army has finally taken a side regarding the third term? Or is it just a call to both protestors and police to exercise restraint during demonstrations? Moreover, is it really feasible to send the Burundian army to the streets, in a pre-election context, without reviving tension among Burundi’s military apparatus, and exacerbating violence?

Indeed, one must not forget that Burundi’s army, also known as the National Defense Forces (FDN), is a relatively integrated national army. It incorporates members of the previous national army, the Armed Forces of Burundi (FAB), a mostly Tutsi force, which battled Hutu rebel groups during the civil war (1993-2005). The current ruling party, CNDD-FDD, was one of those rebel groups. Today’s FDN consists of officers from different backgrounds and loyalties, mostly split between ex-FAB and ex-CNDD-FDD. However, these two major components of the army exhibit divisions. Just as in the political sphere, there is also a splinter CNDD-FDD movement in the army, one that is opposed to a third term for Nkurunziza. Thus the current Burundian army is far from being the “armed branch” of the CNDD-FDD.

The Burundian army has been consistently silent on the third term question and nearly invisible throughout the recent months of mounting tension. An official neutrality and balance best explained by the independent character of Burundi’s army, but also by the fact that military leaders disagree on the issue. The Minister of Defense is reported to be against a third term, while the head of the army (Chef d’EtatMajor) is reportedly pro-third term. The majority of ex-FAB oppose it, while the CNDD-FDD splinter movement is also potent in the army. So Monday’s announcement is as ambiguous as it is significant: given the army’s neutral posture and internal dynamics, it is unclear if it will actually be deployed against protestors. Yet, the decision is up to President Nkurunziza, whose expected third-term run is the very point of contention in Burundi.

Tomorrow, Saturday April 25th, the CNDD-FDD party council decides on its candidate for the presidential election in June. Pierre Nkurunziza’s nomination should come as no surprise. It would be hard to imagine that he and his party misled the public for so long, only to declare, at the last minute, that he will not run. As Burundi’s leading human rights activist Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa has stated, Burundians will take to the streets again if Nkurunziza was chosen as the CNDD-FDD candidate.

In the case that the Burundian army was indeed deployed to the streets upon Nkurunziza’s request, how will it behave? It is difficult to predict what would happen, but here are some possibilities:

  • Crackdown on protestors? Perhaps. The hitch here is that throughout the past 10 years, the Burundian army has mostly refrained from intervening in civilian life or taking part in abuses during episodes of tension. It is certainly possible to see the army involved in suffocating protests, but it would be a major development, considering its neutrality in past years.
  •  Guaranteeing low-violence protests on all sides (demonstrators AND police) and minimizing tension through its presence as a respected, independent institution? An evidently much more desirable outcome. The Minister’s assertion that the army would act “in compliance with national and international regulations” seems in line with this possibility.
  • A third possibility is that of a coup d’état, led by the ex-FAB and fringe CNDD-FDD officers—as an attempt to restore the constitutional order. Thus, the army seems like the only institution that could really stop Nkurunziza from a third-term run. Even the most prominent Nkurunziza opponents—Agathon Rwasa or Hussein Radjabu (also CNDD-FDD)—would have little to no chances of defeating him were he to be chosen as the CNDD-FDD candidate. In the past, in a similarly tense situation, a coup d’état would be very plausible in Burundi. Today, this scenario is much less likely but not to be excluded.

What remains certain, however, is that a confirmation of Nkurunziza’s third-term bid will bring people to the streets. When that happens, and if the army is dragged in, things could turn ugly. Either for protestors, or for Nkurunziza and his loyalists—the core of the CNDD-FDD.

Given the diverse composition of the army and the rift between pro and anti-third term voices, deploying Burundian troops to the streets could indeed be explosive, with the possibility of different sides of the army turning against each other, or of a coup d’état, which should not be ruled out. And what would be the reaction of the international community, and of the region—with the Eastern African Standby Force—to such a scenario?


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